The village of Siédougou in Burkina Faso, at the forefront of the Sahel's climate crisis
In the village of Siédougou, a tiny sun-scorched cluster of straw and mud huts in the remote northern reaches of Burkina Faso in the African Sahel, the daily onslaught of the desert winds is the least of their problems. Parched by years of successive drought, this desolate region is mired in a worsening food crisis where millions face acute hunger and malnutrition.
"It is going from bad to worse. The rains are not coming. The moment that the crops need does not come," said Madiega Guandou, a mother of nine in her fifties. The villagers are constantly fighting a losing battle to feed themselves, she says. The children are always hungry. Some of her adult sons and daughters have left, in search of a place "where there is rain and food". But despite the hostile weather, Mrs Guandou does not want to abandon the only home she has ever known. "We want to stay here in our village," she says.
Hers is a story repeated across the Sahel, the vast barren expanse of arid lands and desert that stretches across the continent south of the Sahara. Here, in one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth, the struggle for survival is becoming more desperate with each passing year. This year, 20 million people in the Sahel face food insecurity and hunger while 5 million children are suffering acute malnutrition.
Madiega Guandou, a resident of Siédougou
Now, international organisations are warning that the Sahel's ravaging food crisis is not only having disastrous humanitarian consequences, but is exacerbating the insecurity spreading across the region. One by one, the countries of the Sahel are falling into religious and ethnic conflict, as poverty and increasing competition for resources proves fertile ground for extremism. Nigeria has lost much of its north to the Islamist group Boko Haram, Mali is still consumed in a multi-front conflict involving both Tuareg separatists and various Islamist factions, a bloody Christian-Muslim war has taken the Central African Republic to the brink of genocide and the infant South Sudan, which celebrated an unhappy third birthday earlier this month, has ricocheted from years of civil war within the larger Republic into its own inter-ethnic bloodshed. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active in several countries, while the region is awash with arms and fighters that have flooded out of Libya following the fall of Moammar Gaddafi.
In June, the new UN Special Envoy for the Sahel, Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, used her first briefing to the Security Council to warn that Islamist violence was threatening the stability of the entire Sahel. She said "terrorist acts" in the Sahel and the Maghreb had increased 60 percent in 2013, with the crises in Mali, Nigeria and Libya fuelling criminality and conflict across the region. The vastness of the Sahel and its porous borders meant groups were becoming increasingly trans-national, she added. “The deterioration of the political and security situation in the region and beyond constitutes a serious risk of new connections between terrorist groups based in Sahara-Sahel, Nigeria and [East Africa]."
She stressed the connection between the "extremely fragile" humanitarian situation and the worsening regional security. "Unemployed youth are particularly vulnerable to religious radicalisation, while extremist groups are increasingly investing in the development of violent indoctrination," Ms Sellassie said. "Extremist and radical ideologies continue to spread in the Sahel region and are driving many young men and women into violence."
Even in countries which have so far been spared from conflict, the fear that the region is a tinder box close to ignition is evident. Nations across the Sahel were acutely worried they could become "engulfed" by the crises in their neighbours, according to Dr Benjamin Nickels of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the United States National Defense University. "The refugees are everywhere, the fear is everywhere and the movement of terrorists are everywhere," Romano Prodi, Mrs Sellassie's predecessor at the UN, said last year of the regional threat posed by Mali.
Back in Burkina Faso, the tiny, impoverished nation whose name translates as "land of the incorruptibles", residents say Christians, Muslims and the multitude of tribal groups live together in relative peace. But they note that underneath the surface, the pressures of hardship and scarcity are generating tensions along such fault lines, which an opportunistic political leader or extremist group could easily exploit. The presence of the Islamists just across the border in Mali also looms large.
"It's peaceful here, for now," said one Burkinabe working with an aid agency, noting that the conditions that set off the conflict in Mali existed throughout the Sahel. "But in two or five years, who knows?"
"Where there are serious levels of poverty and governments fail to deliver effective administration and services, there is an increased risk that religious and social and political differences can evolve into violence," Paul Melly, an associate fellow of the Africa programme at London think-tank Chatham House, told me. "And it is true that many Sahel countries do suffer from weak governance, the ongoing risk of drought and widespread poverty."
French troops on patrol during Operation Serval in Mali, 2013
The Sahel has become so unstable that on Friday 18th July, France announced the establishment of a regional military force to tackle the rise of Islamist groups. Based out of Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mali, 3,000 French troops would "confront this threat of terrorism in the Sahel", President François Hollande said on a trip to Niger, adding that "West Africa's security is France's security".
Dr Nickels said the growth of extremist organisations posed a "significant threat" to the region and beyond. They could provide support to global threats such as al-Qaeda and might eventually make serious attempts to strike beyond Africa, he told me.
But Mr Melly said that development also had to be part of the solution. While the roots of regional conflicts were complex, he said, "poverty, a lack of economic options and the resulting frustration among young men seeking livelihoods… certainly are a substantial contributor".
"Insecurity in the Sahel cannot be solved through military measures," he added.
The competition for resources is only heating up further. Climate change and desertification are deepening the food crisis and, as a consequence, regional instability, to the extent that the British and French governments commissioned an OECD project to investigate the security implications for the Sahel. It warned that climate change could cause damage to livelihoods that in turn could provoke tensions and conflict. The extreme weather events such as droughts and floods which batter the region were only predicted to increase, it added.
The Sahelian villages of Burkina Faso are certainly no place for climate change skeptics. Here, residents are true believers – they are fighting it on a daily basis. Siédougou was razed to the earth by a 2010 flood that left yet another crop cycle in ruins. The villagers are terrified it could happen again. "We are afraid. It was the first time we have seen a flood," said Mrs Guandou. "This is the fear we live with."
Meanwhile the desert is encroaching ever further. "The desertification is getting worse," said Nana Bata, a 45-year-old mother of five in the village of Kossouka. "There is not enough rain, the fields are arid, dried up. … [they] do not produce like they did before."
"It's hard and it's getting harder and harder. People are suffering," she said, adding, "Malnutrition has killed a lot of children".
The failure of the crops is forcing more and more people into the mines, where they work in dangerous conditions in the hope of unearthing some of the gold that has sparked a mineral rush in the country – and an accompanying rise in child labour. But the men might mine for a year without earning anything at all, instead becoming further indebted because of the hefty fees they often have to pay for licenses, said Yarga Amidoupoa, a 30-year-old mother of four in the village of Boungou Natimsa. "If they don't find anything, sometimes they don't come back for a while because they feel ashamed," she said.
In a cruel catch-22, just as the food crisis increases potential for conflict, that conflict in turn ups the pressure on resources even further. Local economies suffer and the flight of refugees from conflict pits newcomers against permanent residents in competition for land, food and water.
The Sahel also faces the looming threat of an unprecedented Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Guinea that has already spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia, claiming over 600 lives since March. While suspected cases in Mali have so far proved to be a false alarm, medical agencies have warned that the epidemic is out of control and could affect the whole region, putting further strain on countries already in crisis and stirring more refugee flows.
The links between security and development are so close that the two issues must be tackled hand in hand, said a senior European Union official in the region. "The lack of access to food and water is a risk," he said. Coming on top of political instability, community divisions and the lawlessness in much of the remote area, he said the crises in countries such as Mali could spread. In the Sahel, "There is the potential in any country," he said.